The Brown, Brown Stalks of Spring

As I have noted before, I am of the camp that believes in letting perennials stand over winter, then cleaning up in spring. It tends to be better for the birds, the plants, and the beneficial insects. Some people say it looks messy. They may have a point, but I prefer messy to bare frozen earth, which I find depressing.

Virginia Wild Rye
Grasses are among the easier plants to clean up in spring. This is Virginia Wild Rye.

There is still the question of what to do with the dead stalks that remain when the snow melts, like ghosts of gardens past. For ghosts, they are very bulky. If you have a lot of space planted with perennials, as I do, you can generate a fairly massive quantity of what my younger son refers to as “dead stalky things”.

There are two solutions that I find unsatisfactory: the compost pile and the yard waste bag. What remains of perennials plants is mostly cellulose (if I remember my botany correctly),  which will not compost well unless it has been shredded. I have been tempted to buy a shredder/chipper, but hate the idea of a gasoline powered tool in the garage.

Putting this stuff in the alley as yard waste to be picked up by the city seems just wrong. I have used the approach of placing bundles of stalks in out of the way places in the garden, to break down in nature’s own time. However, there is a limit to how much you can do this on an urban lot.

Goldenrod stalks in the back garden.

This year I am trying an approach that my brother suggested to me: just cut back the perennials in lengths of 6″ or so, and let the stalky bits fall where they may. I started putting this approach into practice last weekend, even though it was dang cold. So far I have drawn the following tentative conclusions:


  • Good exercise for your wrists and arms.
  • Gives you a head start on getting mulch down on the beds.
  • You don’t have to wrestle stuff into yard waste bags.
  • You are not generating solid waste.


  • It’s a lot more work.
  • Your beds will look messier, at least initially.
  • You are inviting more volunteers from self-sowers.
  • Soil may warm more slowly with if covered with more organic material.

Most of these disadvantages don’t bother me too much. For one thing, I like my garden to be at least a little messy. I suspect, though, that I won’t be able to let all the dead plant material lie on the beds, that I’ll have to pile some in out of the way corners as I have done in the past. But for now I am content to see how this approach works out.

What about you – how do you dispose of the brown, brown stalks of spring?

Book Review: The Gardener’s Palette, by Sydney Eddison

Late last year I got interested in trying to be more deliberate about the color schemes in my garden. Prior to that, I thought in terms of how two or three plants might fit together in terms of color, but never of a whole bed, let alone a whole garden.

The Gardener's Palette

When I wrote about this interest, Jayne on Weed Street recommended The Gardener’s Palette, by Sydney Eddison. Having now read this book, I can confirm  that it is indeed very worthwhile for gardeners trying to think more systematically about color.

It really isn’t possible to summarize the whole book, but here are five things that caught my imagination.

Pay attention to how colors gradually meld into one another. In discussing the color wheel, Eddison notes that there are an infinite number of intermediate colors between the pure hues. You can create harmony by combining red and red violet, but add red-orange and you have created a note of contrast, because the red-violet does not share the yellow hue contained in the red-orange.

Aim for a limit of three colors. Monochromatic gardens are just too limiting for me, but there is definite value in trying to limit the number of colors, with three being a good goal to aim for. I have to confess my lust for possessing many different plants makes this difficult. However, in my front driveway flower bed I should get pretty close next year. In spring: red, yellow, blue. In summer: blue, orange, yellow, with accents of red and white. And in fall, blue, yellow, and purple-pink.

Pay attention to intensity. Red is generally an intense color, so a little bit goes a long way.  That’s why I generally don’t use more than a splash of it in my beds. In addition, intense colors can be tamed by using the related tints (mixed with white), shades (mixed with black), and tones (mixed with gray). Using a higher ratio of softer colors like blue prevent intense colors from overwhelming, while at the same time making them more effective through contrast. Green and silver/gray can also pull contrasting colors together, preventing contrast from turning into open warfare.

Sydney Eddison
Sydney Eddison

Use complementary colors. I was very interested in Eddison’s discussion of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, or complementary.  When presented with a lot of one color, the eye naturally seeks out its complement. This is why complementary colors, like orange and blue, look right (to me, anyway) – in effect, they complete each other. They also provide contrast, which I personally find to be a necessity because too much harmony is just boring.

Look to art and nature for ideas. Natural landscapes present us with many color schemes that can be translated to the garden with great effectiveness. Similarly, a great deal of inspiration can be found in paintings, and not just landscapes.

The photography in The Gardener’s Palette is worth an unhurried examination, as it effectively illustrates the points made in the text.

The author stresses that the critical thing is to look carefully at the color in our gardens and in the world around us with a perceptive and appreciative eye.

Container Tulips: Back to the Garage You Go!

Last fall I wrote about how I had planted 96 hybrid tulip bulbs in containers for the spring of this year. I prefer to use species tulips, which are smaller and more perennial, in my beds. Judy, however, missed the big, luscious hybrid tulips, and so I thought I would give growing them in containers a try. Tulips in containers bloom once, then go on the compost pile.

Tulip 'Kingsblood', one of our choices for containers.  Photo: Tulip Gallery.
Tulip ‘Kingsblood’, one of our choices for containers. Photo: Tulip Gallery.

When the really cold weather arrived, I moved the containers into the garage. I’ve read that tulips in containers are more vulnerable to freezing temperatures than those in the ground.

We have an attached, unheated garage. I assumed that if I lined the containers along the wall that the garage shares with house, the tulip bulbs would be OK. I did notice during the winter that the surface of the planting mix in the containers was frozen, and I worried a bit how the bulbs were doing.

Tulip bulbs in container
Planting tulip bulbs in container.

So imagine my delight two weeks ago when I saw the first red tips of tulip leaves emerging from the containers. At that point it seemed as if spring had finally arrived. I didn’t want my baby tulip leaves to go without sun, so I moved them out to the front steps.

Container Tulips
If you look really closely you can see the red tips of the tulip leaves.

However, as the days passed the arrival of spring turned out to be on hold. Temperatures went below freezing most nights.

Now that I am about to leave on a five day business trip, the low temperature for the week is predicted to be just 15 degrees F (-9 C). So I am moving my poor tulips back into the garage.

Container Tulips
Back in the garage they go. Yes, I know the garage is messy.

Sigh. I hate to deprive them of sunlight (not that we’ve had much of that either), but I’m also afraid of a massive tulip fail due to frozen bulbs.

Are any of you growing tulips in containers?

Garfield Park Conservatory Part II: Blooms for GBBD

Well, our blooms this March 15th are limited to snowdrops (Galanthus). I’ve already posted pictures of those. So this seems a good opportunity to post some more pictures from our visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory.

For starters, there was a “Spring Flower Show”, which consisted of a bunch of blooming azaleas in containers. Nice, but not too exciting.


There was a compact hybrid Bougainvillea.


In the Aroid House we saw a Flamingo Flower (Anthurium) cultivar  in bloom. Someone should tell this plant that it is not polite to point with your spadix.

Flamingo Flower

There was Crown of Thorns (Euphorbium milii), which is aptly named, in the Desert House. What if William Jennings Bryan had said in his famous speech, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this Euphorbium milii …”?

Crown of Thorns

Loved this Popcorn Orchid (Oncidium).

Popcorn Orchid

This is called Hanging Lobster Claw (Heliconia rostrata), which is truly a great name for a flower.

Lobster Claw Plant

There was also Yellow Walking Iris (Trimezia martinicensis), also a pretty good name.

Yellow Walking Iris

Love the flower of this Red Torch Banana (Musa coccinea).

Red Torch  Banana

Finally, Flaming Sword Plant (Vrisea splendens), an apt name for a truly dramatic plant.

Flaming Sword Plant

All in all, a fine variety of flowers to enjoy on a cold March day in Chicago. For more blooms, check out MayDreamsGardens, which hosts Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

SOS for Monarch Butterflies

An article in today’s New York Times contained alarming news about the decline of Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly

This year the butterflies are occupying less than three acres of pine forest in their Mexican winter habitat. That’s down dramatically from the seven acres occupied in 2o11 and the 50 acres that have been full of Monarchs in some past years. Some scientists believe that further decline could bring Monarch populations below the point of no return. My own unscientific observation is that there are definitely fewer Monarchs than there were a few years ago.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch of the milkweed.

The culprit is the decline of wild milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in the American Midwest. High prices have caused farmers to maximize acreage under cultivation, plowing up strips of land that had once been full of grasses and wildflowers. Also, the prevalence of herbicide-resistant corn means that there are far fewer milkweed plants growing as weeds among the corn rows.

Monarch Butterfly

Milkweeds are the only host plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. No milkweed means no food for  new generations of Monarchs as they migrate from south to north and back.

We can help the Monarch butterflies by planting more milkweeds in our gardens. There are several garden-worthy species available. A post about the milkweeds I like to grow is here.

Do you have milkweed in your garden? Or do you have plans to add some during the coming year?

Sunday in the Garfield Park Conservatory with Judy – Part I

Last Sunday Judy and I met Danny for breakfast in Logan Square, then visited the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time in years. The Conservatory is a Chicago landmark, built in 1906 and designed by Jens Jensen, the great landscape architect of the Prairie Style. We wanted to see some green plants, but also we wanted to see how the Conservatory had recovered from the devastation caused by a hail storm in June, 2011.

Garfield Park Conservatory
2011 Hail Damage, Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo: Chicago Park District

The storm shattered half the glass panes over large sections of the conservatory. Through heroic efforts, the conservatory was reconstructed using temporary poly-carbonate sheeting. Starting in April, the Conservatory will be closed so that structural repairs can be made and permanent glass panes installed. It will not re-open until 2014.

Highlights of our visit included Chihuly glass installed with a pond and waterfall. I think I saw an article or blog post entitled “Beyond Chihuly Glass”. Are we supposed to be tired of Chihuly glass? I’ve never seen it anywhere else, so I like it.

Garfield Park Conservatory Chihuly Glass

We visited the Desert House,  where there was a sprawling cactus I didn’t see a name for, but which provided a pretty persuasive argument for keeping your shoes on.


There was also Saguaro Cactus, and a Saguaro Cactus skeleton.

Saguaro Cactus

I thought this Century Plant was impressive. They bloom once after 2o or 30 years, then die.

Century Plant

In the Children’s Garden there were tropical fruit trees and plants, including this banana.


We walked through the Palm House, where we visited the Scheelea Palm. This is the Conservatory’s largest and oldest Palm, grown from a seed planted in 1926.

Scheelea Palm

Garfield Park Conservatory

Oh, and there was also some useful horticultural tips. For example, this helpful sign on pruning.


On Friday I will post the strange and beautiful tropical flowers we saw at the Garfield Park Conservatory, in honor of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day – seeing as there is still very little blooming outside in our area.

First Flowers of Spring!

For some time now, I’ve had a growing sense that everyone around the world is rejoicing in their many colorful spring blooms. Everyone, that is, except myself and other winter-weary gardeners in Chicago and further North. It’s a feeling akin to knowing that there is a really big party out there to which you were not invited.


Well, my invitation has finally arrived. Most of the snow melted over the weekend during the mild, rainy weather. And under the snow, it turns out, there were snowdrops (Galanthus)!


A few had started to come up in January, and were battered a bit by subsequent deep freezes. But they are welcome even so!


The weather is supposed to dip back down below freezing in the middle of the week, but I can bare that now. The snowdrops have arrived, first flowers of spring in my garden! Hurrah!


Gardeninacity In The News!

One of the birders who came to see the Varied Thrush in our yard was Jeff Reiter. Jeff writes a birding column for The Daily Herald, the leading newspaper in the Chicago suburbs. Today’s column was about seeing the Varied Thrush, which happened to be the 500th bird species he has watched – an important milestone. He was kind enough to mention and quote from Gardeninacity. The column is here.

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Stackable Snacks For The Birds

We are still snow bound. Last week, I thought the snow might be on the verge of melting for the last time of the season. Silly me. On Tuesday, we got another 8″. It is melting again, but slowly.

Chicago snow
Our latest snowfall. Chicago is not ready for spring.

So not very much to be done in the garden right now. Instead, I can fiddle with my bird feeding operation.

Yesterday, I bought some cylinders of nuts, seed, and dried fruit bound together with gelatin. These go under the product name “Stackables”, which sounds a  lot like “Snackables”, pre-packaged lunches for grade schoolers you can buy at the grocery. We bought Snackables for a while, but they were expensive and probably unhealthy. Naturally, our kids loved them.

Red Breasted Nuthatch inspects our new Stackables.
Red Breasted Nuthatch inspects our new Stackables.

The similarity in names is probably not a coincidence. Our interest in backyard bird feeding intensified greatly once our kids had moved out of the house, and I don’t think we are alone in that.

Stackables are sold by Wild Birds Unlimited, which provides something in the way of bona fides. They have holes through the center, and you slide them onto the central pole of a bell-feeder, which I already owned. The packaging claims that Stackables are attractive to Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Grosbeaks, Catbirds, and others.

I wanted to try out the Stackables as a replacement for the shelled peanuts that I put out during the winter. Shelled peanuts are very popular with Nuthatches and Woodpeckers. They’re also very popular with Starlings, Grackles, and House Sparrows, and I’d guess 80% of the peanuts were eaten by these nuisance birds.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker helps himself to some suet.

The nuisance birds also eat from the cylinders, but supposedly get a smaller share because they have to work harder to get the parts they like. I’m a little skeptical, but we’ll see.

Another advantage of the cylinders is that you don’t need to keep 20 lb. sacks on your porch, as you do with shelled peanuts. Also, they’re supposed to provide a better look at the birds, as they have to stay on the feeder longer in order to get what they want.

Other foods we provide include suet, sunflower, peanuts in the shell, and nyjer seed. Peanuts in the shell are popular with Cardinals and Bluejays, but they provide little of interest for the nuisance birds. Nuthatches and Woodpeckers will eat from peanuts in shell, though given the choice they will go for shelled peanuts. In the summer we put out grape jelly and oranges for the Orioles.

I put out the cylinders this morning. The response so far has been modest: Cardinals and Red Breasted Nuthatches have taken some bites.

This is not surprising. It usually takes a while for the birds to get used to a new food. Also, for some reason this is a slow day in general at the feeders.

Have you made any changes lately in your bird feeding practices, or are you thinking about making any changes?

West-Of-The-Driveway Bed

About two years ago I put in one of my newer beds. It’s situated between the crabapple tree on the north and the sidewalk on the south. A thin strip of lawn separates the bed from the driveway to the east, and on the west is the neighbors’ lawn. Though it gets a bit of shade from the crabapple, this bed gets a lot of hot afternoon sun and is probably the driest of all my flower beds.

I wanted this bed to be no more than 3′ tall and wildlife-friendly. All of the plants attract pollinators, provide seeds for birds, or both.

Plants I have used here includes the following:

Tulipa praestans 'Fusilier'
Species Tulips ‘Fusilier’

Species Tulips (Tulipa praestans ‘fusilier’ and others). As I’ve written before, I love species tulips. Much more perennial than hybrids, the bulbs are smaller and easier to fit into a perennial bed.

Prairie Smoke and Starry Solomon's Plume
Prairie Smoke. This picture has both the flowers and a couple of seed heads.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum). This prairie native forms a drought-resistant, low-growing ground cover. Unique pink flowers in early spring mature into wispy seedheads.

Harebell, Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Harebell with Lanceleaf Coreopsis

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia).  Harebell is a North American native Campanula. The small, blue, bell-shaped flowers bloom pretty much from early summer to frost. Harebell looks dainty but is actually pretty tough, and can get by without much water. I grew both Harebell and Praire Smoke at the front of this bed along the sidewalk.

Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). Long-blooming yellow daisies on a 2′ tall, undemanding plant. Mine tended to grow a bit taller and needed staking.

Scabiosa 'Butterfly Blue' and Lanceleaf Coreopsis
Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’ and Lanceleaf Coreopsis, displaying my favorite blue/yellow combination.

Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’). Scabiosa is one of the few non-native plants in this bed. However, with deadheading the blue pincushion flowers bloom all summer and into the fall. Another easy care plant, I combine it with Coreopsis along the east side of the bed.

Starry Solomon's Plume, Prairie Smoke
Starry Solomon’s Plume with Prairie Smoke in late Spring.


Starry Solomon's Plume Berries
Starry Solomon’s Plume Berries

Starry Solomon’s Plume (Smilacena stellata). Starry Solomon’s Plume grows only about 18″ high and does well in dryer soils. This North American native has small bunches of white, star-shaped flowers in spring and interesting striped berries in fall. Birds are fond of the berries. This plant spreads by rhizomes, but I find it does not grow thickly enough to really make a good ground cover. An undemanding plant, I’ve got it in the center of the bed.

Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius, Anise Scented Goldenrod, Solidago odora
Aromatic Aster with Anise-Scented Goldenrod. I love the dark centers on this aster.

Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). One of the best Asters because it stays relatively compact (about 3′) and is not overly aggressive. Also it has many, many small blue-violet flowers in mid- to late-fall.

Anise Scented Goldenrod
Anise Scented Goldenrod

Anise Scented Goldenrod (Solidago odora). A wonderful (2-3′) compact  goldenrod that plays well with others in the garden. I combine this plant with Aromatic Aster towards the back of the bed.

Prairie Dropseed
Prairie Dropseed.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobulus heterolepis). I planted these along the west edge of the bed. This is a low-growing warm season grass of the prairie. Takes a few years to get established, so in the meantime I’ve filled in with ‘Orange Profusion’ Zinnias. The Dropseed is starting to look good, though.

I’m also trying to grow Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) in this bed. So far it’s just limping along, but I hope it will grow into more robust shape. I also had planted some Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) along the west edge. This was a mistake. Carolina Rose spreads very aggressively. It’s also extremely thorny (ouch!). So last fall I pulled it out and replaced it with various Salvias.  We’ll see how it looks next year.

What are your favorite plants for dry, sunny spots?




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